One of my favorite parts of steelheading is taking some time to rummage around the shops in Pulaski to try to find stuff that I don’t see around here. This fall’s trip yielded a bounty of choice swag. Shops like All-Seasons Sports and Whitakers — where I bought these goodies — rely on your business to stay in business. So I encourage you to shop locally, both near your home river, and then also when you’re far away.
My swag, clockwise from left: Rusty Brown deer hair strip (I never buy deer hair sight unseen, and this was by far the best pack in the lot); Drennan 6lb. fluorocarbon (the only fluoro I use — it sees action for steelehead, and for trout/smallmouth streamer leaders); P-Line Floroclear 10lb (I use this for my nymph rig and steelhead butt sections); Fluorescent Orange and Fluorescent Chartreuse mallard flank, which I rarely see, for streamers). Coming soon to a river near you!
By all accounts, it’s been a challenging fall on the Salmon River. That was the main reason I skipped my usual early November trip. But now, later in the month, it was time for my annual father/middle son Cameron steelhead bash. Prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best, we headed northwest. Here’s how it went down.
Monday, November 23: Too many teardrops for one heart. I generally don’t count fish, but steelhead being what they are, I keep track of my landing-to-hookup ratio, and especially my total landings. For those of you keeping score at home, I was at 96 landed at the start of this trip. A combination of egregiously slow action and bad timing in the last 18 months had slammed the brakes on my progress. But with a clean slate of two days to fish, the magic number of 100 was certainly in reach. One good day — hell, a few good hours — could get me there.
As always, the Cam trip is done under the guidance of my friend James Kirtland, aka Row Jimmy. Given the dearth of consistent action in the upper and mid-river boat runs, we made the decision to wade the lower end of the Salmon. Jim’s clients had hooked 10 at this mark yesterday. But you know how that goes with steelhead — here today, gone tomorrow, and at 8am, Cam and I sans hookup, the last thing I wanted to hear Jim say was, “I don’t like this. We had a half dozen fish on by this time yesterday. “
But all it takes is one, so when I set the hook on a dropping indicator and felt the bottom shake its head, I was stoked. My set was fast and sharp (with a second one thrown in for good measure) so I was a little surprised when the fish came undone about a minute into the skirmish. That’s the thing about steelheading. You can do everything right and still drop the fish. Something uncontrollable, like the wrong angle of attack or a bony insertion point can spell doom, and there’s nothing you can do but wonder why.
My second hookup was a chromer that treated the lineup to several entertaining aerials. When that fish got off, I was beginning to question my capabilities. Have I lost it? I don’t think so. I wasn’t doing anything differently. Then I saw it. Scales impaled on the point of my chartreuse Steelhead Hammer. Clearly a fouled fish.
Well, that explains that.
My final touch of the day also ended bitterly. This time it was a snapped tippet. I can’t remember the last time I broke 6-pound Drennan. Surely this was due to an abrasion or other accident of war. Regardless, the result was disappointment, and I was left to cry, cry, cry, cry, 96 tears.
Tuesday, November 24: Down to our last strike. Tuesday’s options were run the mid-river or try creek stomping. The Sunday night/Monday early AM rains were just enough to make us think that some fresh fish might have wanted to make the run, so creeks it was. I settled into a favorite pool while Jim and Cam headed upstream. You’ve always got to be ready with that first light first cast — a take is a damn good way to start the day — but an hour later I still didn’t have a touch.
Then, the indicator slowed, and I set the hook. (Today was a strong case for learning the nuances of indicator nymphing. Of the three fish I hooked in this pool, none of them pulled the indicator under — it simply slowed or deviated from its downstream path. You’ve heard me say it before, and it’s probably the best advice I can give you for this style of fishing: look for a reason to set the hook on every drift.) A powerful head shake, then fish off. C’mon. Really? When I hauled in my rig for an inspection, my tippet was again sawed off. Good grief. But about 15 minutes later, a domestic rainbow decide to eat, was landed, and I was somewhat off the schneid.
Finally, this egg-laden hen pounced. She kept to the pool during our tussle, and once she was safely in the net, I couldn’t help but admire her glorious iridescent colors. She reminded me of the hen on page 10 of Matthew Supinski’s book Steelhead Dreams. I’d just admired that photo last night, and I wondered if somehow I channeled her into taking on that drift.
Whereas Monday was well above freezing, Tuesday was not. Iced-up guides were a constant challenge, as were cold hands. Funny how you forget all of the sensory negativity when you’re fighting a fish.
Then there was poor Cam. He didn’t have a touch(!) on Monday, plus a disaster leak in one boot foot compounded his misery. Tuesday’s shot at redemption was even more frustrating: he had several takes and no good hook sets to show for it. (We don’t think Cam was at fault, either. In the interest of finding fish, Jim had a line in the water too and missed three steelhead — and he’s a really, really good angler.) And now, it was early afternoon and just about at the end of our session. I could tell Cam was emotionally done, but I encouraged him to take a few last casts while I walked downstream to cross the river.
And that’s when it happened. Two outs, down to our last strike, bottom of the ninth, and we drill this walk-off steelhead. I think I’ll just shut up and let you appreciate the simultaneous fatigue, relief, and joy on this young man’s face.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Cam, but we appreciate you playing, Mr. Buck. We surely do. This was the second time we’ve had a last-cast, day-saving steelhead while fishing with Jim.
Great news for Block Island striper fans: Author Dennis Zambrotta is putting together a followup to his classic Surfcasting Around The Block — and he’s asked me to contribute a chapter. I’m totally stoked. But jeez…I have so many good stories to tell…how do I pick just one? Not to worry. I already have a good idea about what I’m going to write about…
In case you’re unfamiliar, the original Surfcasting Around The Block is “a collection of memoirs and short stories about Block Island, surfcasting, and striped bass.” Even if you’re strictly a fly angler (like me), it’s loaded with pearls and gems. The followup will have plenty about fly fishing.
I just got back from a two-day steelhead trip with middle son Cam. You’ll understand that I’m a little wiped, and with the holiday tomorrow, a little busy. So the full story will have to wait. I can tell you that the conditions were challenging and we had to work hard for every fish. Until then, here’s a little salmonid taste to tide you over on turkey day. Be safe, be well, and please know that I am truly thankful for your readership and following.
Another November ritual completed: the refilling of the steelhead box. (One of them, at least. This is my main box.) It’s emptiness or fullness before I begin is usually a good indicator of the previous season. Did I go on a lot of trips? (An average number.) Did I lose a lot of flies to the bottom gods or to the unyielding material of a steelhead’s jaw? (Not so much. Slow year.) I will restock the box with old favorites, and perhaps a few new experiments. The order of its contents remains a comfort. Nymphs, soft hackles, stoneflies to the left; eggs, attractors, and junk flies to the right. Such a contrast between dull blacks and browns and the riot of fluorescence. Which patterns will be the hot item this year? Only one way to find out.
It recently occurred to me that many, if not most, of my currentseams audience hasn’t seen any of the stuff I wrote and/or tied before I started this site. I came to this realization when I was trying to find the recipe for the Steelhead Cameron, a west coast marabou wing-style streamer that was part of a series of patterns named for each of my three sons. Since I’m always looking to give you fresh, interesting, and useful content, I thought that this might be a worthy project: to go through my archives and find the old stuff that doesn’t suck. I know I did a whole series on legacy saltwater patterns. There are stories to re-tell. I’d likely need to re-tie and shoot any fly patterns. Stay tuned while I go digging….
The Steelhead Cameron, part of the “My Three Sons” series. All of them work. You’ll have to wait to see the Gordon and the William, and to get the recipes for all three.
The best steelhead nymphs are the ones in which you have the most confidence. After all, “best” isn’t measurable. But if you buy into the old saw that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it, I’d like to offer up five steelhead nymphs that have proven their worthiness on New York’s Salmon River.
So, what qualifies a steelhead fly as a nymph? For the purposes of this list, I’ve kept it to flies that are size 8 or smaller; flies that feature predominantly muted colors (hot spots, contrast points, and bead heads are allowed); and flies whose basic construct is at least 50% actual invertebrate driven. So, no bigger stoneflies here. No Steelhead Hammer types. And no black-light poster colors. Here we go, in no particular order. As a bonus, some of the patterns have links to my tying video.
60-Second Redhead. The beauty of this fly isn’t that if you lose one to the bottom gods, you’re not depressed because they’re so fast and easy to tie. It’s that this fly, which would never catch your eye in a retail bin, is like candy to steelhead when they’re eating bugs.
60-Second Copperhead. After pounding up so many steelhead on the redhead, I wondered if they’d like a version with a copper Ice Dub head. A wise old Salmon River veteran once told me, “It’s hard to go wrong on this river with black and copper.” He was mighty right.
Copperhead Stone. I landed my first steelhead on this fly, and years later, it still works. I remember one morning in the Lower Fly Zone when I was handing them out to everyone who wanted to know, “What fly are you using?”
Spider. Another ridiculously simple tie (notice a pattern here?): size 12 hook, black Krystal Flash tail, black Estaz body, copper (the original calls for olive or pearl) braid flashback. Designed by Clyde Murray for Erie fish, the Salmon River steelhead like it just fine.
My top five steelhead nymphs for the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY, are all very simple ties. Note that they all have some kind of contrast, flash, or hot spot. These are all high-confidence patterns for me, all proven producers, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them when you suspect the steelhead are eating nymphs.
To be fair, it was only a few hours — I fished from noon to 3pm — but the going was glacially slow. I hit four favorite nymphing marks below (450cfs) and within the TMA (390cfs), and I found a trout willing to jump on in only one of them. I used a combination of tight line and indicator nymphing methods, and I even switched out my point fly and dropper — none of it seemed to make any difference. The angler traffic continues, with nine other folks sharing the water with me during my travels. Mine was the only fish I saw hooked all day, which is not to brag, but rather to illustrate how slow the fishing was. I stopped at UpCountry on the way home to do some shopping, and Torrey Collins said that nymphing has been slow for him lately, too. So it goes.
The day wasn’t a total loss. I scored this beautiful, webby dark dun hen cape at UpCountry. Just what I need for my next batch of Dark Hendrickson winged wets.
I’ve been using Cortland 444 Peach double taper fly line for years, on both my larger river and small stream trout setups. This was the first fly line I bought, and I’ve never found the need for something else in a basic line. The five-weight size performs equally well on my 10′ Hardy Marksman II and my quiver of short small stream sticks. It works for wets, dries, nymphs, and smaller streamers. It’s a durable line, and the best part is that when one end gets gershtunkled, you simple reverse it because the front and back tapers are a mirror image.
An all-time classic with spiffy new packaging. Cortland 444 Peach is available in double taper or weight forward. New to this model is a factory welded loop at one end. If you choose to reverse the line, you can simple make your own at the other end. As always, I urge you to patronize your local fly shop — mine is UpCountry Sportfishing in New Hartford, CT.